After a successful slave rebellion in 1804, Haiti was became the first independent state in Latin America. Since then the country has endured 200 years of relentless tyranny, conflict, poverty and racial discord. In early 2004, U.S. Marines returned, once more, to restore order amidst chaos and anarchy in one of the world’s poorest, most hopeless states.
Haiti has been exploited as a French and American colony, before falling victim to U.S. backed, anti-communist dictatorship. Haitian politics is traditionally conducted at the barrel of a gun, or the blade of a machete. Bowing to rebel demands and U.S. pressure, the ineffectual, but elected President Aristide has been forced into exile, as the U.S. has led a multinational force to restore order, in a nation that has known neither order, nor hope.
Arawak Indians inhabited The Island, called Quizqueya by the native Arawak Indians, was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Colonists from France and Spain decimated the indigenous tribes. The French developed an active slave trade to produce sugar and in the late 1700’s, slaves rebelled and won independence in 1804 - the first independent state in Latin America.
From 1804 until 1843, various factions struggled for political control of the island. Despite the slave revolt, a light-skinned elite class (mestizos) retained economic and political power. In 1843 a Creole revolution finally split the island into the Dominican Republic and Haiti. This did not end the chaos in a land conditioned to violence.
According to James G. Leyburn (The Haitian People) "Of the twenty-two heads of state between 1843 and 1915, only one served out his prescribed term of office, three died while serving, one was blown up with his palace, one presumably poisoned, one hacked to pieces by a mob, one resigned. The other fourteen were deposed by revolution after incumbencies ranging in length from three months to twelve years."
In 1915, the United States sent troops to Haiti after rebellious mobs killed President Guillaume Sam and paraded his dismembered remains through the streets of the capitol. (A year later the U.S. invaded the Dominican Republic, establishing a protectorate.)
America proceeded to establish a virtual colony in Haiti. According to the Library of Congress country report on Haiti, U.S. authorities “controlled Haitian customs houses and administrative institutions. Representatives from the United States wielded veto power over all governmental decisions in Haiti, and Marine Corps commanders served as administrators in the provinces. A treaty passed by the Haitian legislature in November 1915 granted further authority to the United States. The treaty allowed Washington to assume complete control of Haiti's finances, and it gave the United States sole authority over the appointment of advisers and receivers. The treaty also gave the United States responsibility for establishing and running public health and public works programs and for supervising routine governmental affairs. The treaty also established the Gendarmerie d'Haïti (Haitian Constabulary), a step later replicated in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. The Gendarmerie was Haiti's first professional military force, and it was eventually to play an important political role in the country.” - U.S. Library of Congress Country Report on Haiti, dated 1989, at: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/httoc.html
During an era when African-Americans faced discrimination and segregation in America, it’s not surprising that the U.S.,exploited Haiti’s sugar and coffee resources, but took little interest in nation-building. The U.S. withdrew from its governing role in 1934, ceding power to the Garde, and setting the stage for government by the security forces and those who controlled them.
“Even the few national leaders whose election apparently reflected popular sentiment, such as Dumarsais Estimé (1946-50) and François Duvalier (1957-71), rejected constitutional procedures in favor of retaining personal power. The popular revolt that deposed President for life Jean-Claude Duvalier (1971-86) demonstrated the Haitian people's rejection of parasitic despotism. At the same time, however, the revolt reaffirmed another lesson of Haitian history: violence has often been the only effective route to change.” (L.O.C.)
Papa Doc Francois Duvalier 1957-71
In 1957, Doctor Duvalier seized power with U.S. backing. In 1963, Haiti and the Dominican Republic came to the brink of war when Dominican President Juan Bosch threatened to invade to overthrow Duvalier. When Bosch failed to act, Duvalier felt victoiuos and declared himself president for life in 1964. To protect himself from a military coup, “Papa Doc” Duvalier organized the Tonton-Macoutes (meaning bogeymen), or national security volunteers – a 300,000 strong quasi-militia. After the Cuban Revolution, the Cold-War struggle moved into the America’s and, seeking to stem the rise of people’s rebellions (communism) in Latin America, the U.S. continued its backing of the Duvalier regime. The tonoton-macaoutes are charged with killing over 30,000 during the reign of terror.
Baby Doc, Jean-Claude Duvalier 1971-1986
Papa Doc died in 1971, but transferred his title to his 19-year old son Jean-Claude, known as “Baby Doc,” who perpetuated the corruption, exploitation and intimidation of his father’s regime. Baby Doc earned a reputation as an international playboy who had no interest in governing or the welfare of the Haitian people. The savagery of the tonton-macoutes continued, claiming an estimated 40,000 lives.
During a 1983 visit to Haiti, Pope John Paul declared, "Something must change here." This planted the seeds of renewed activism and dissent. By 1985, demonstrations grew, people raided food storage centers, and street violence erupted.
In January 1986, President Reagan called for Duvalier to step down. Duvalier initially agreed, then rejected Reagan’s demand, exacerbating the crisis and violence. Duvalier fled from Haiti in February 1986, leaving anarchy in his wake, as the tonton-macoutes fought with forces of the new National Governing Council and other internal factions, disrupting plans for fair elections. Three years of violent jostling for leadership control followed, until 1990, when Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president, with broad popular support, a promise of reform, and a modest goal of “poverty with dignity.”
The Aristide Era
Aristide fared no better than his many predecessors and was overthrown in 1991 by General Raul Cedras. As conditions worsened, assassinations became routine, Haitians began to flee en masse on death boats bound for Florida, creating a humanitarian crisis.
When President Clinton refused to accept Haitian refugees, the exiled Aristide called the policy “a floating Berlin Wall.”
In 1994, faced with unrestrained political violence, anarchy and a flood of refugees, the U.S. landed a UN sanctioned, multinational force to restore order. Aristide returned from exile to resume his presidency, with protection of UN peacekeepers. He won re-election in 2000, but reacting to election concerns, aid donors froze millions in economic aid. Powerless to stop the endemic government corruption, or improve living conditions in one of the world’s poorest nations, discontent led to renewed violence.
Back to the Future Again
In early 2004 a small band of rebels called for Aristide’s removal and provoked public disorder. In February, Aristide’s security forces, as weak and ineffectual as the government, retreated in the face of the rebel advances, and by month’s end the rebels surrounded the capitol of Port-au-Prince.
As Haitians once again threatened a refugee crisis, and despite concerns about demanded dissolution of a democratically elected government, U.S. President Bush pressured Aristide to step down. On February 29th, Aristide once again fled Haiti, claiming he was abducted by the U.S., as America once again landed to lead a multinational peacekeeping force. An interim transitional government has been organized, amid hopelessness and uncertainty as to Haiti’s future.
Lacking a concerted international effort and will to resurrect the Haitian economy and build a functioning government, the Marines can expect future deployments to this sunny but dismal, impoverished Caribbean isle.